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Why I am blasé about Forward Sg exercise

I have been waiting to read news reports about responses to the upcoming Forward Sg exercise. Since its launch last month, I can recall only having read one article with three political analysts giving their views to ST, and one short column by a TODAY journalist. Never mind that we have had such national conversations in the past, the responses centred on the same old issues, such as whether this will be a “talkfest’’ and the need to win over skeptics. 

Whenever the G embarks on such an exercise, it is usual for some people to pour cold water on it, without examining whether there is evidence of whether past conversations were really just “talkfests’’ or had produced tangible outcomes or, at the very least, a mindset or cultural shift in the way Singapore should move ahead. 

The TODAY columnist gave two examples.

 The Emerging Stronger Conversation led to Alliance for Action groups formed by public and private sector representatives to examine issues within their sectors and propose changes, he said. If you’ve forgotten about the conversation, I wouldn’t be surprised given the many others we have had. But this was very recent, in mid-2020, launched by then PM-designate Heng Swee Keat. You can read more about it here.

For your information, there are at least 30 such Alliance for Action groups overseeing subjects as diverse as Sustainable Spaces, Corporate Purpose and Strengthening Marriages and Family Relationships. The Emerging Stronger dialogues are part of the Singapore Together movement launched in 2018. (Remember this one?). 

The columnist also said that the five-day work week was the result of the Remaking Singapore exercise. (Remember this one?). This was way back in 2002. The lack of  “follow-through’’ of the dialogues is what accounts for much of the cynicism. Publicity on the followup work is scarce. My view is that the G has itself to blame for not attributing policy changes to a productive discussion in any of its conversations.  

I believe though that most people remember the Our Singapore Conversation much better.

Why? Because it was extensive, involving over 47,000 Singaporeans participating in over 660 dialogues island-wide. 

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Also, it was done in the wake of GE2011. Opposition gains led to much soul-searching on the part of the People’s Action Party government, which felt the need to align itself with the changing priorities of the electorate. Most people took to the OSC because the PAP G looked like it was ready to listen, now that it had been given a whack. We wanted to talk about values such as meritocracy, welfarism and the Singapore core, to suggest that tweaks were needed in policies to reflect changes to the way we think about these values.  

The OSC result might seem fluffy to some as the conclusions dwelt on values and priorities. I happen to think that the conclusions were the basis of some later changes, say, to the education system which is deemed as too strait-jacked and stressful for students. But that’s just me talking.  

The examples cited in the TODAY column aren’t enough to recommend yet another exercise. In fact, it begs the question of why a new conversation is needed at this time. It would seem that the Emerging Stronger exercise, involving 16,000 people, is not broad enough to deal with the post-pandemic challenges. “New-ish’’ reasons given were the rising geo-political tensions, slowing social mobility and a rapidly aging population. 

The term “social compact’’ was used. The G defines this as “ a shared understanding of how we relate to each other’’. “It is an expression of our shared values and norms, and determines the roles and responsibilities of the Government, the community, businesses, and individuals in society,’’ according to the Forward Sg website.

Nobody wants to say outright that the Forward SG exercise is also a branding and PR exercise for PM-designate Lawrence Wong and his 4G team. It seems churlish to point this out because, after all, why not? I can even foresee how the results of this exercise will be distilled into the PAP’s election manifesto for the next general election due by November 2025, as an example of the party reacting to people’s feedback. 

I have become more and more blasé about the worth of such conversations, even though I try to credit some changes to past dialogues. This is because I see them as just part of the G’s communication exercise that it has so magnificently sewn up to its advantage in recent years. This is yet another tool in its communications kit. 

Trite as it sounds, the fact is that conversations take place everyday without need for a structured format led by the officially appointed. They come in the form of announcements, news about changes to people’s lives, people’s reactions (both rational and irrational), inputs from experts and questions requiring more information and further insights.  The media is the filter, probing and extending information and ensuring that the people are served first in as professional a way as they can muster, rather than the wishes of the Government. The two are not necessarily aligned.

On briefings, press conferences and door stops

From merely a reading of news media reports every day, it looks like the G has its media communications strategy down pat. It releases press statements to the media and gets ministers to go on Facebook, knowing full well these would be reported fully. The final news report looks appropriate as it would have quotes from a minister who can therefore also be seen as actively engaged on social media. The more prosaic fact is that the media were probably told what time to check Facebook. 

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Sometimes, some agencies simply release news on social media, cutting out the need for the media to broadcast it further. They can do so because they know that the media will report them fully, even though the news is already in the public domain.

Or newsmakers hold a briefing to highlight to the media the important parts of the media release, so that the media can be apprised of its “significance’’. Journalists can ask questions, but are usually not allowed to report the answers. And because they have been briefed, they are expected to know how to handle the writing. 

I shake my head at news reports that state the information emanated from a briefing. Attending briefings is not something journalists should boast about, given that it connotes a one-way dialogue. A journalist asks questions – and they do so at a press conference which, aside from those held by the Covid-19 multi-ministerial task force, is becoming a rare event. 

In fact, press conferences used to be far more common in the past, chaired not just by ministers but also civil servants. In my view, they show a government that is keen to connect with the people, upfront and transparent about its work. They are messy affairs, of course, because the prepared message might go off-kilter in response to the questions asked. The end result might not be to their liking, even though the journalists believe that they are doing right by the reader. Press conferences can also be a minefield for newsmakers who are unused to being questioned or unprepared to face a vigorous media. Why risk looking stupid?

I shake my head even more vigorously when I see journalists blithely reporting that the information was gathered at a “doorstop interview’’ – as if they had waylaid the newsmaker with important questions. Almost all doorstop interviews these days are pre-arranged, because the newsmaker has something to say and wants the media to report them. It is not at the initiative of the journalists who would probably be told off by the newsmakers’ minions for having the temerity to stop the newsmaker in his tracks. I suppose media handlers think such doorstop interviews look good on television, you know, to have reporters crowding around a newsmaker when they could actually sit in a meeting room at the appointed time. 

 There is also the increasing number of “closed door dialogues’’, said to foster greater openness among the participants. Hand on heart, I tell you that there were far more “open’’ dialogues in the past than before. We have regressed as a people who are willing to put our names to our views, aided by a G which doesn’t want to rock the boat in case unpalatable speech gets out of then room. 

What I find most disturbing these days is how Parliament seems to be the only place to get answers. And even MPs who ask questions risk having their motives questioned. Days and weeks can pass before a  regular Parliament sitting is held. So everyone, including the media, has to wait. Then the communications strategy is to have a ministerial statement answer all the questions asked. This is supposed to be the final word on the subject. Parliament is not just a clearing house for legislation, but the end point of discussion. 

I have always harboured hope that the lack of questions or good answers in news reports is because of the incompetence or ignorance of inexperienced journalists. I am beginning to think that it is borne out of habit. Why ask questions when there is little chance of getting an answer, or being accused of harbouring agendas? Why fight against an establishment that insists that its press statements and speeches “already’’ have all the relevant points and that more questions and answers would not be in the “national interest’’? It takes too much time and energy to run uphill. 

Far better to become the G’s production house, doing the “packaging’’ of content and adding bells and whistles. After all, there is no need to engage the brain to figure out whether they have been told a tall story or less than the full story  (of course not!), given half-baked info (that’s more than enough info!) or attempt an analysis that is at odds with the G’s narrative (that’s mischievous!). 

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Do not forget that during this time of sophisticated media management, laws have been passed to make sure journalists stick to the straight and narrow. There is POFMA, POHA, FICA, OSA, the Sedition Act. They might not have been applied often to mainstream media but they are levers that can be pulled. Their lack of use can be explained in many ways: The mainstream media toe the line most of the time, or the relationship between the G and the MSM is so pally that censures take place out of sight, or the laws are intended for other media players. 

The laws might be for the public good, but it is not a public good if one outcome is a mainstream media so afraid to risk putting a foot wrong that they become a subservient instrument of governance. 

The result is that when it comes to reading material about local developments in the mainstream media, we hear one story only, and that is the story we must believe. 

The restructuring of the Singapore Press Holdings media business announced last year had initially given me hope that journalists would be able to reclaim the public space as a mediator between the people and the G. I see now that I was silly. News reports are still headlined with platitudes and are echoes of the official position. They have information gaps that you can drive a bus through. You may refer to my series of #berthablowsup for examples.

Increasingly, I think of the public money disbursed to SPH Media Trust as a leash. The leash allows the media to carry on reporting and writing, but the leash can also choke.

New pillar needed in Forward Sg exercise

All the above is to explain some of my cynicism over Forward SG. It’s part of G’s communications strategy of controlled discussion in Singapore honed over recent years and bolstered by a myriad of laws to ensure that it remains not just the dominant, but also the only, voice in the country. 

To fit into the G’s overarching communications strategy, such national conversations have to be officially held, in defined areas such as Economy and Jobs, Education and Lifelong Learning, Health and Social Support,  Home and Living Environment, Environmental and Fiscal Sustainability and Singapore Identity. If you think about it, they must be held because the media has become increasingly unable to be a source of feedback and useful suggestions.

Conversations have to be officially led too. 

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The G  is so confident of its approach that it doesn’t even see any problem having Mr Ng Chee Meng as a 4G leader who co-chairs a committee. Even if the argument is that he is needed as a representative of the labour movement on a topic such as employment, then a business leader in the private sector should be up there with him too.

However much the current 4G team values his participation as a fellow 4G leader, the fact remains that he had been rejected by the people in the biggest feedback exercise of all,  the general election. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth to realise that the vote result isn’t taken to heart by the G. No fig leaf was extended. No questions asked. What does this do for the credibility of the Forward SG exercise which purports to listen to all views? 

As for the content of the exercise, if the objective is to forge a stronger social compact, then one missing pillar is the role of the media in sustaining and forging this compact. The G surely knows that, on a daily basis, the media is the most important player in getting people together and on board the same road. It also surely knows that this can be easily frayed if people think they have been forced onto the same road, by being fed from the same trough, because they have not been apprised of any other route. You do not want citizens who are sheep, even though they might be easier to govern. 

It also cannot be good for people to always take the G’s word as gospel, because they do not know or cannot see what is missing from the text. I feel like I am getting dumber every day I read news reports on local developments because most times, I do not have enough relevant information to process due to lack of rigorous reporting.

It is time we discuss the media’s role and its relationship with the G, private sector and the people. I am not even referring to old hoary chestnuts like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act which requires the media to obtain an annual licence to operate, although it would be good to give it a dusting over. I am referring to the subtle changes in media output over the years where political spin is increasingly prioritised over professional standards. 

Much as we decry the Western model of the journalist’s role as a watchdog, we cannot tilt the other way, veiling the motion with platitudes and behind-the-scenes management.

Our two media entities, SPH Media Trust and Mediacorp, receive plenty of public funding. That is enough reason for us, as a people, to take an interest in what we are being fed every day in the form of news content. An uninformed and uncritical citizenry is unable to play a useful part in a national conversation. 

In my view, the late Lee Kuan Yew had a better understanding of the role of the media. He knew how they can be both a force for good and bad and how they can dull people into becoming sheep or arm people with the ability to think for themselves and for the country.  He might have whacked the media and beat journalists on the head, but he did not dismiss the media. 

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Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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